Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (Ephesians 4.28-29)
We hear a lot about the “social safety net.” I genuinely believe the vast majority of us agree we need it, as most are wise enough to understand that we as a nation would be in far worse shape without it. Deciding who’s entitled to support is where the conversation unravels. These programs cost a lot of money—funds taken from us in taxes and essentially redistributed without our consent. And because it’s our money, we want to feel confident those who receive financial support are legitimately in need and not playing the system. It’s a fair expectation.
What’s not fair—what should be patently unacceptable to every believer—is the presumption that a large portion of the net’s beneficiaries is comprised of lazy people who’d rather “steal” from the system than find work. The stereotypes we often hear—“welfare queens” and “leeches”—don’t come from nowhere. We know these species exist. Yet when we paste such labels on those who rely on government provision to survive, not only do we defeat the net’s purpose. We give poverty a foul name. And as people who worship a God Who chose poverty as a way of life, we are highly aware that relying on common kindness (as Jesus did) is no slur on one’s dignity and worth. Second Corinthians 8.9 reminds us, “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor.” It should distress us greatly when believers promote ideologies that slander the destitute and dependent as thieves. “Get a job!” is their panacea to poverty—a facile answer that disregards many impediments to gainful employment: availability of work, deficient experience and education, childcare and health issues, transportation, criminal record, and so on. (And McDonald’s isn’t the answer.)
Ephesians 4.28 is a favorite for many Christians in defense of their simplistic go-to-work stance. Yet if we look at it clearly, it’s evident they’ve got it backwards. First, it’s written to the Church; it’s not a social policy statement. And it’s about actual thievery, not sloth or abusing kindness. Most of all, why does the writer urge us to find honest work? So we may have “have something to share with the needy”! This passage validates the social safety net, without any mention of who “deserves” to benefit from the fruits of our labor. (And frequently—conveniently—the expectation that we share what we earn with the poor gets amputated from the quote.) The writer goes on to caution us about we say, telling us, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” (v29) If our thoughts and words about the poor aren’t constructive, we’re out of line.
When we vote for candidates who endorse policies that deprive the poor, we add our voices to cynics who would rather compound the sufferings of the needy than part with a buck. We have quit our calling to build up, and joined ranks with believers and non-believers intent on tearing down. Working only for our benefit—demanding that those who don’t enjoy advantages we’ve been given do likewise—is how honest work becomes dishonest.